Obama And Chavez: BFFs?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 18, 2009

CB Trinidad Americas Summit ObamaI am in favor of talks with Cuba because I believe that such talks, which would include a discussion of human rights abuses in Cuba, would help put renewed pressure on the Cuban regime to liberalize, change and reform. Thus far, the embargo has brought about no palliative results, the regime didn’t skip a beat in the transition from Fidel to Raul, and it shows no signs of going away anytime soon if the status quo persists. The status quo has got to be changed and things have got to be shaken up if there is to be any hope of introducing positive change in Cuba. Talking would help address the human rights situation in Cuba in a fruitful way, while at the same time advancing American security interests.

There are security interests involved in talking to Venezuela as well, but as we have seen, Hugo Chavez is a blowhard with a lust for the spotlight–which he invariably uses to cause rhetorical and diplomatic mischief, leading at times to interventionist mischief in Latin America as well. Thus, the smart thing to do regarding Chavez is to ignore him. When Chavez is denied the spotlight, he signals to all and sundry with his statements that he is withering; sometimes, he makes it sound as if the withering is physical.

I suppose that there was no chance that President Obama could avoid Chavez at the Summit of the Americas, which is going on as I write this, but really, did he have to get so chummy?

U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday greeted and shook hands with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez during an impromptu meeting with the anti-U.S. leader at the Summit of the Americas.

Photographs released by the Venezuelan government showed Chavez, a fierce foe of former President George W. Bush, smiling and clasping hands with Obama at the start of the summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Trinidad.

“I greeted Bush with this hand eight years ago; I want to be your friend,” Chavez told Obama, according to a Venezuelan presidential press office statement.

When someone tries to show you up, it’s best not to think of that person as a friend:

At President Obama’s meeting with the heads of South American countries this morning, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood, walked over to him, and presented him with a copy of “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.

Obama politely posed for a photograph with Chavez, shook his hand, and accepted the gift.

The book, first published in Spanish in 1971, offers a critique of the consequences of 500 years of European and U.S. colonization of Latin America.

Symbolism matters in foreign policy and the symbol of an American President accepting a gift that insults the United States is more than a little grating and appalling to behold. If this is the way an encounter with Hugo Chavez was supposed to go–and really, who didn’t see this coming?–couldn’t the Obama Administration have sought to avoid the meeting altogether?

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